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All’s Welles That Ends Welles: “The Other Side of the Wind” and a Sense of Seventies Timelessness…

There is a tendency to think of the current moment as the most important moment; call it “modernity bias.”

There is a certain egocentricism inherent in this premise, in the idea that this moment when we exist will always be the most important moment. On a purely philosophical level, there may some truth in the idea. After all, this is the one moment when we actually get to make a decision and exercise agency, this is the one moment where a course of action can be changed. Of course, people have made decisions in the past and can plan for the future, but this is the moment that exists right now. It’s understandable to think of the current moment in such terms.

Sometimes this can make it hard to engage with popular culture outside of those terms. Of course, a lot of popular culture is defined by the moment in which it was released. It would be hard to separate All the President’s Men (or even conspiracy thrillers like The Conversation or The Parallax View) from the cultural paranoia of the seventies, just as it would be hard to divorce films like Fight Club (or The Matrix) from the pre-millennial anxieties that informed them. This is not to suggest that these movies lack relevance outside their moments, but instead to acknowledge they are rooted in their times.

In most cases, works are released relatively close to the time at which they were produced, meaning that audiences and critics respond to these films in the context in which they were made. Audiences reacting to films like All The President’s Men or Fight Club were very much in step with the culture that informed it, and so there was a strong communion between what the film was saying and what the audience was hearing. Indeed, any critical reevaluation of these works exists in conversation with the original evaluation, and so the cultural conversation about these works of art tends to move forward from a fixed point.

However, this creates a challenge in assessing works that exist outside of that template. “Lost” works that have been recovered. “Incomplete” works that have been finished. Even older works that have been revisited. It is, for example very hard to separate Doug Liman’s reworked 2018 director’s cut of his 2010 film Fair Game from the context of its later release, specifically President Donald Trump’s pardoning of a key official involved in the events depicted in the film. It becomes an even bigger challenge when dealing with a work that is seeing the light of day for the first time years removed from its original context.

Is The Other Side of the Wind a lost seventies film, or is it a film for the closing of the second decade of the twenty-first century? Is it both? Is it neither? Is it something else entirely?

It is hard to pin The Other Side of the Wind down, chronologically. Shooting began in 1970, and wrapped in 1976. The movie was shot in bits and pieces. It is perhaps revealing that the central character of Jake Hannaford was one of the last roles cast, and that many of the actors appearing in the film may never have interacted with leading actor John Huston. Many of the conversations in the film were shot before the role was cast, with Welles standing in for his fictional and flawed director. (Appropriately enough, the leading man from his film-within-a-film is also missing, and an old man role went tragically uncast.)

Dues a variety of complex factors including a fleeing producer and the Iranian revolution, very skilfully explored in the companion documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, the film would remain unfinished for another four decades. To be clear, the film is not unique in this regard. Welles left behind a significant number of unfinished projects like Don Quixote and The Deep. So much of Welles’ later work was left unfinished that They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead feels the need to devote approximately five minutes to a discussion of whether Welles wanted to finish any of them.

However, Netflix eventually stepped into the gap, fulfilling their strange role as custodian for “the kind of projects that major studios rarely undertake anymore”, a rather surreal umbrella that covers both Set It Up and The Irishman alongside a long lost Orson Welles project. The Other Side of the Wind was cut together from Welles’ footage and in accordance with the director’s wishes in as much as was possible. It would be released in November 2018, nearly half a century after Welles initially embarked upon this cinematic odyssey.

So the question becomes whether The Other Side of the Wind should be considered as a seventies film or as a piece of twenty-first century cinema. It’s an interesting debate. The film was conceived and filmed during the seventies. It was pieced together many years later, albeit in a form consistent with the wishes of its original director as best they could be understood. Is it possible to divorce The Other Side of the Wind from the context in which it will be watched? On a purely practical level, is it fair to describe The Other Side of the Wind as a potential candidate for “the best film of 2018”?

To be fair, The Other Side of the Wind all but teases this out in its opening moments. The film opens with some scrolling text providing necessary background information about the restoration, but then the film itself provides its own preamble that provides context for what the audience is about to see. In character as director Brooks Otterlake, actor Peter Bogdanovich provides an opening narration that places over pictures of various events. The voiceover provides a sense of context for the film, viewed through the lens of hindsight. Otterlake explains that he personally blocked the release of the film, based on his own ego.

It’s an interesting narrative conceit. Of course, it’s impossible to know within the world of the film when Otterlake recorded his narration. However, outside of the film, that dialogue would have been written and recorded within the past couple of years. It serves to ground the film, even within its own world, as something anchored in the present rather than rooted in the past. It reminds the audience that while the footage of The Other Side of the Wind was recorded more than forty years earlier, that footage was only recently fashioned into a cohesive film. It is but one example of the film’s narrative hall of mirrors.

It’s tempting, of course, to examine The Other Side of the Wind through a modern lens. It is perhaps a testament to Welles as a filmmaker that so much of the film has a resonance today, whether thematically or just through coincidence. Certainly, the character of Jake Hannaford seems to tap into modern debates about the concept of the “auteur” and the way in which the concept is coded in certain masculine ideals. Welles even explicitly grapples with this idea, exploring the strange power dynamic between Hannaford and Otterlake, as articulated by critic Juliette Riche.

Indeed, certain aspects of The Other Side of the Wind seems decidedly more pointed than they would have on the film’s initial production, such as Hannaford’s creepy seduction of a young woman flirting with Otterlake. At one point, Hannaford promises to whisk the young girl off to Mexico, assuring her, “I’ll write a note to your teacher.” At the time, this was seen as a rather passive-aggressive aside from Welles directed at Bogdanovich’s relationship with the (appreciably younger) Cybill Shepherd.

In hindsight, it plays a lot more menacingly. It evokes the way in which many beloved New Hollywood films tend fixate upon romances between older men and younger women; the work of Woody Allen stands out (especially Annie Hall), but it’s also notable that McMurphy’s crime of statutory rape is just shrugged off in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This aspect of the film resonates with a number of other stories about seventies Hollywood figures; Roman Polanski’s rape of Samantha Geimer, Woody Allen’s relationship Soon-Yi Previn, even tales of on set abuse of young female performers like that on Last Tango in Paris.

Other aspects of The Other Side of the Wind have aged less well, such as its treatment of the little people that are brought to Hannaford’s party as a source of amusement and novelty for the guests. Similarly, the casting of Welles’ Croatian partner Oja Kodar as a mostly-silent anonymous Native American actor is similarly uncomfortable. Even then, there is a sense in which the movie is having a bit of fun at the expense of Hollywood itself, perhaps playing with the industry’s renewed but still shallow engagement with the treatment of Native Americans during the seventies.

Certainly, there are still ongoing conversations about the exploitation of Native American culture within popular film and television. More than that, there are still controversies raging about whitewashing and the casting of performers as characters of other ethnicities. While it is too much to suggest that The Other Side of the Wind is engaged with that debate, it is interesting to see the film playing with these debates that are still ongoing forty years after the footage was originally shot.

However, the most striking aspect of The Other Side of the Wind, at least from a modern perspective, is how well it holds together in terms of form and technique. Welles adopted an improvisational style when making the film, which is spliced together from a variety of hand-held cameras. There is rarely a single shot that is held for more than five seconds. The footage alternates between black-and-white and colour. The most traditional old-fashioned filmmaking in the movie is that employed by Hannaford in his eponymous epic, which is perhaps the most dated piece of filmmaking within the movie.

Of course, it’s tempting to over-emphasise the level of innovation at work within The Other Side of the the Wind. After all, the mockumentary was a well-established form by the time that Welles began work on The Other Side of the Wind, from early efforts like The Land Without Bread to more mainstream later efforts like Hard Day’s Night and Take the Money and Run. Indeed, the film is arguably an extension of other similarly playful efforts within Welles’ body of work, including War of the Worlds and F for Fake. In fact, F for Fake was filmed in the middle of his work on The Other Side of the Wind.

At the same time, it is a testament to Welles that the intentionally rough hand-held quality of The Other Side of the Wind feels like some long-lost antecedent of contemporary found-footage films like Cannibal Holocaust, Cloverfield or Creep. While it is not explicitly a horror film, there is certainly a lot of discomfort and mounting dread in The Other Side of the Wind. There is certainly a sense in which The Other Side of the Wind feels ahead of its time in its central conceit of being a single narrative stitched together from footage taken from dozens of handheld cameras.

Otterlake’s opening narration wryly notes that the film predates camera phones. It is a rather clunky piece of exposition, but it is also a tacit acknowledgement that it would be easier to justify a film like The Other Side of the Wind in 2018 than in 1970. After all, all of the film for all of those handheld cameras would have cost a lot of money for all of those acolytes to be filming every moment from every angle. In contrast, it is easier to imagine dozens of fans recording hours upon hours of footage on their mobile phones.

However, what feels most modern and most contemporary about The Other Side of the Wind is its emphasis on perspective and the power of editing. The film is constantly cutting, the audience’s perspective is constantly shifting. In his introduction, Otterlake describes how “this little historical document has been put together from many sources” in “an attempt to sketch a film likeness of the man himself as he looked.” The film constantly reminds the viewer that it is an incomplete sketch of it subject, populated with gaps and lacunas.

The Other Side of the Wind feels strangely relevant in the “post-truth era”, arriving at a point in time where it seems like the very nature of reality itself is subject to debate. It is a different sort of “post-truth” film than something like I, Tonya or American Animals, but it speaks to a lot of those same broad anxieties, the fear that what is being shown is not really what happened, and that there is no single narrative of history, but instead a collection of competing fragments that can be stitched together in the hope of forming something vaguely coherent.

In its own way, the context around The Other Side of the Wind seems to play into this same heightened sense of unreality that permeates contemporary popular culture in television series like Legion or Westworld. Quite apart from the world of Hannaford or Otterlake, there is a sense that the movie released on Netflix under the title of The Other Side of the Wind is not actually the real movie The Other Side of the Wind.

There is a sense that The Other Side of the Wind only ever existed inside the head of a man who died more than thirty years ago, and that any attempt to recreate that vision is just a facsimile. Welles confesses as much via recordings in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. He confesses, “The jigsaw pieces were separated by time. There’s no way for the picture to be put together, except in my mind.” Maybe The Other Side of the Wind never actually existed at all, and this finished film is just a vague outline of some hypothetical final form. It adds to the sense of unreality around the film.

As such, The Other Side of the Wind seems to have arrived at around the perfect time. Had the film been released even four years ago, let alone eight or ten, it would have had very different connotations. These aspects of the finished product would not resonate so strongly. There is a weird sense in which November 2018 feels almost like the perfect place for this particular work of art, for this last statement from Orson Welles.

However, there is also some modernity bias at play. The Other Side of the Wind might have seemed jarring or strange had it arrived eight or ten years earlier, but it is easy to imagine a project like this resonating in the context of the late nineties, for example. It would have fit comfortably amid the existential uncertainty of the era, reflected in films as diverse as Dark City, The Truman Show or The Blair Witch Project. If anything, The Other Side of the Wind would have seemed even fresher released alongside The Blair Witch Project rather than almost two decades later.

More than that, all these aspects of The Other Side of the Wind are very much rooted in the social and cultural anxieties of the seventies, which played as a grotesque hangover from the sixties. It is perhaps too much to parallel the postmodern and fragmented tone of The Other Side of the Wind to the trauma of Watergate, which would have unfolded in the middle of the extended period of shooting. However, those missing eighteen minutes of recordings on the Nixon tapes suggest the same sort of gap in the official narrative as the edit in The Other Side of the Wind.

Seventies America was recovering from the failed social revolution of the sixties and trying to come to terms with its own identity. The official narrative was fraying. The public was losing faith in the institutions that were supposed to provide support and protection for them. The Vietnam War was raging. “No fault divorce” tore families apart. Economic pressures created a generation of latch key kids. In the late sixties, it seemed like the United States was going to tear itself apart. By the early seventies it seemed that no two people believed the same narrative of the country.

In its own weird way, this may explain why The Other Side of the Wind feels so resonant with this cultural moment. The spirit of the seventies is very much alive in contemporary America. During 2016, there were repeated discussions about whether the country was more or less divided than it had been during the chaos of 1968. The current administration has been repeatedly and consistently compared to the Nixon White House. There has even been a resurgence in civil rights protests, and a renewed engagement with feminist criticism of the establishment.

This is to say nothing of a subtler cultural shift. The early years of the second decade of the twenty-first century were largely given over to sixties nostalgia, reflected in everything from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to Star Trek to Mad Men to Interstellar to X-Men: First Class. However, recent years have seen that nostalgic gaze move towards the seventies; The Nice Guys, the second season of Fargo, The Post, The Deuce. Westworld is a remake of a seventies film. Halloween is a sequel that ignores everything that had happened in the franchise since 1978.

This is to say that there is a strong cultural parallel between the present moment and the seventies, that the cultural mood resonates. This things move in cycles, of course. The X-Files received a revival recently, suggesting nostalgia for nineties nostalgia for seventies paranoia. In its own weird way, The Other Side of the Wind landed at precisely the right moment to have these sorts of parallels. Perhaps it is not that The Other Side of the Wind speaks to this moment, but that this moment speaks to the moment that produced The Other Side of the Wind.

Still, it is a testament to Welles that he can produce a movie that speaks so clearly to a moment thirty years after his own passing.

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